Thursday, December 17, 2009


One of the things I like about languages are the terms that don't really translate directly between them, and so express ideas that can only really be had in that language! I hope to one day learn German mostly because there are a few terms in that language that our department's German historians use in conversations. I understand why they don't bother to translate them into English. It's the same with amour propre- it doesn't really mean self-love or self-esteem, although those are the closest equivalents in English. So, just call it amour propre. If you read enough French works on the subject (Rousseau writes about it, for instance), you sort of absorb the sense of it.

One funny thing though is that once you absorb the sense of the word, you forget that it's not commonly used in your native tongue. A case in point: Julian Sanchez points out the role of ressentiment in contemporary politics, and is praised for his shrewd analysis. Honestly, though, it never occurred to me that ressentiment isn't commonly discussed in US politics- I just assumed everyone knew it plays a big role in all politics. Maybe that should be rôle.

Sanchez quotes:
Ressentiment is a sense of resentment and hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one’s frustration, an assignation of blame for one’s frustration. The sense of weakness or inferiority and perhaps jealousy in the face of the “cause” generates a rejecting/justifying value system, or morality, which attacks or denies the perceived source of one’s frustration. The ego creates an enemy in order to insulate itself from culpability.
If you've ever read Saint Simon on the French court, you get where ressentiment was born! Sanchez talks about it in terms of "the pathology of the current conservative movement" and some of what he says there is pretty shrewd. I should note that I can't remember ever having a conversation with a conservative Sarah Palin enthusiast in which the fact that she "drives liberals crazy" didn't come up quickly, as if that's a good reason to elect a candidate!

In reality, I think the party out of power often falls prey to ressentiment. I remember taking a course in about 2003 in which one of my classmates was a middle aged teacher who just hate-hate-hated George W. Bush. Every break of every session he would complain about George W. Bush in the most hyperbolic language. After a while, it got to be funny because I realized that no matter what I told him about Bush, provided it was heinous enough, he would believe. I kept wanting to ask him, "So, did you hear about that young boy Bush molested when he was in college?" I guarantee he'd have bought it.

I think that sort of anger and contempt comes more from alienation than philosophy.

Sanchez is pretty clear that the "conservative movement" has little in common with the actual philosophy of conservatism and much to do with ressentiment. But, in fact, I remember a time in which the left was also driven by spiraling ressentiment. About 1991 or so, after over a decade of Republican rule, I knew a lot of lefties who were wedded to a sort of martyr complex: Oh, we will never change society, but at least we can fail with integrity! It was really depressing.

People I knew became increasingly extreme in order to show their devotion while in the wilderness. I remember listening to a radical feminist once argue that authors who wrote in tongues other than their own were "racists" because they were "appropriating native cultures". Porn, of course, was akin to Nazi propaganda, as were music videos. I still remember a graffiti reading "Men, reject maleness". Sure, no problem. I'll get to that when I get a spare moment! And then there was the argument that the left should work to "abolish the family". The less said about that, the better.

All of that is fringe stuff now. But, there was a point at which left-wing politics were all about ressentiment for the "mainstream", which the left was very far from being a part of. I think my skepticism about right-wing anti-science arguments comes from hearing the same exact arguments in the PC 90s- back then, left-wingers would tell you that there are no biological differences between men and women, but the "Scientific establishment" was too ideologically biased to tell the truth about that, what with all of its "propaganda" about hormones. Objective measures of the world, of course, were said to be impossible.

In France, there is still much lingering ressentiment on the Marxist left- you should see how they respond when some writer publishes a critical book about the history of Marxism! The knee-jerk charge is that the writer is a reactionary or a fascist! Heaven help you if you criticize the old culture heroes of left bank Marxisme.

Anyway, I've all-but-stopped reading conservative websites because it's impossible to keep up with just who we're supposed to be outraged against this week (actually, the same is true of a lot of feminist websites. Bust excluded.) Reading all the ressentiment towards city-dwellers, academics, journalists, climate scientists and biologists, liberals, insufficiently-conservative Republicans, homosexuals, illegal immigrants, atheists, and all of the other outrageous sources of outrage tends to shrink ones's heart and narrow one's mind. The end product of bile is ash.

But, of course, ressentiment is common of all political movements with limited power. At the extreme would be those movements that have no hope of ever bringing change by normal channels and so turn to political violence. Having once rented a room, by pure accident, from members of the Animal Liberation Front, I've seen this sort of ressentiment up close, and it seems to be entirely self-sustaining. It's a faith in itself. I hate you, therefore I am.

If I had to guess, I'd say the US political system should swing regularly between the two parties in the forseeable future, and that when each party is out of power, we should see their crazies come out with outrage towards the rest of the culture. Most likely, their ressentiment will die down when their party gains power and flare up whenever they lose power, like a demented see-saw. This is assuming that neither party becomes like the Bloc Quebecois here in Canada- an angry party that will never rule, but exists mainly to cause trouble for the hated majority.

But that could never happen, eh?


Terrence C. Watson said...

Interesting response to Sanchez's essay. I think you're right that ressentiment is a sentiment is common to the party that's out of power, instead of a specifically conservative thing.

It would be interesting to see if it becomes a motivating factor (in the U.S.) for people further on the left, who are beginning to see Obama as a corporate sell out.

Rufus said...

Probably so. I could actually see the "kill the bill" progressives getting together with the tea-party people based on their common fear of oligarchy. Of course, they'll have a hard time finding common goals.